We’ll use today’s 5-step empty calorie guide to build a weight loss scenario: Imagine you were to make some tiny tweaks to limit empty calories – what weight loss results would you achieve by just doing that?
No, I’m not referring to throwing all junk food out the window and going on a restrictive diet like Whole30. Instead I’m referring, to tiny, tiny tweaks.
To help build your case study I’ll use the imaginary Ben as an example.
- 34 year old Male
- Current weight is 200 pounds
- He’d be happier at 185 pounds
Imaginary Ben would like to drop 15 pounds but he doesn’t really want to diet to get there. Could maybe a few tweaks help him achieve his goal? The answer is flat-out YES! By limiting empty calories, or swapping them with different foods, Ben could e-a-s-i-l-y drop 15 pounds (along with making better choices for his overall health of course.) Also a 15 pound drop would represent 7.5% of his current weight which brings right in the middle of the magic 5-10% weight loss and the goodies that come with that.
We’ll start out by reviewing what empty calories are, move on to understanding where to find them and how to recognize them and end the guide by making our very own calculations for our own weight and for our specific choices until we finally reveal the number: how much weight would you drop if you were to limit some empty calories hidden in your diet?
#1. What are empty calories?
Empty calories refer to foods and drinks that provide calories (energy) but have very little or no nutritional value.
Some foods and drinks are made up entirely of empty calories: think soda, candy, and alcohol. They are essentially “empty” of nutrients and lack these important aspects of a healthy diet:
- Vitamins + Minerals: collectively referred to as micronutrients they are essential for all body functions, a deficiency in one or more can lead to serious health problems.
- Fiber: increases felling of satiety and fullness and can help prevent over eating. Fiber also plays a role in gut, bowel and cardiovascular health.
Foods high in empty calories usually contain:
- Added sugar: Added sugars are those that do not occur naturally in a food. Fruits, dairy and even vegetables contain sugar (carbohydrates) and there is nothing wrong with these naturally occurring sugars – our bodies use carbohydrates as fuel for movement and brain function. The problem arises when excess added sugar leads to excess calories.
- Added fats and oils: Much like carbohydrates, fats are essential to many body functions and are required for good health. Many healthy foods contain natural fats like nuts, avocados and oily fish. Again here the problem lies with excess fat consumption: ultra-processed and fried foods contain excessive amounts of fat and this can all add up to… you guessed it, excess calories.
- Refined carbohydrates: White flours used to make bread, rice and noodles have had the bran and germ removed. This means most of the fiber, vitamins and minerals have also been removed. However, refined carbohydrates are often a vehicle for other nutritious food, for example a salad sandwich or pasta with lot of vegetables. When possible it is best to make whole grain choices such as brown rice or wholegrain bread.
- Trans Fats: Trans fat can occur naturally in very small amounts in some meat and dairy. Most of them however are manufactured synthetically and are harmful to health. Avoid foods with trans fats.
Other foods may contain some nutrients, such as protein and trace amounts of micronutrients, but still be extremely high in empty calories. These forms of empty calories are harder to to identify and require you to read food labels correctly. We will get to that shortly.
#2. What are some examples of foods with empty calories?
Here are some examples of foods and drinks that are made up entirely – or mostly – of empty calories. Let’s start with the first group:
Foods and drinks made up entirely of empty calories:
- chocolate and candy bars
- ice lollies
- crisps, corn chips and some types of crackers
- Soda pop, sports drinks, and energy drinks – even Vitamin Water
- Alcoholic drinks are very high in calories – yes even your beloved yet overhyped red wine
- Milky or sweet coffee drinks
- Fruit juice and fruit drinks (many fruit juices have added sugar, fresh juices lack fiber and are still a concentrated source of sugar)
And now here’s the second group – beware as these are the foods many people eat without realizing their high empty calorie content!
Foods not entirely made of but still high in empty calories:
- bakery goods, such as cakes, cookies, donuts, pastries, pies and croissants
- ice cream, pudding and other dairy desserts
- some kinds of processed meat
- fried potatoes (French fries)
- take-out food such as burgers, pizza and Mexican food
- sugary cereal
- some types of granola bars and fruit bars
- microwave or cinema popcorn
- some types of crackers and other salty snacks
On the flip side foods that are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber such as fruits and vegetables are referred to as nutrient-dense foods:
- whole grains
- unsalted nuts and seeds
- dairy products such as milk and cheese
- lean, unprocessed meats and poultry
#3. What if I’m not sure whether my food is high in empty calories or not?
This is a great question and I’m glad you asked that. The best way to be sure of the empty-calorie content of food is to learn to read food labels.
While it sounds simple, clever packaging and marketing strategies can fool you into thinking a food is healthy when in reality it is full of added sugar, fat or both.
Take this sugary cereal for example. Kellog’s Froot Loops advertise “Vitamin D” on their package, which is a great distraction from the 12 grams of sugar per serving. Kellog’s Frosted flakes advertise 9g of protein while not advertising their 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Kellog’s Fiber Plus Antioxidants also contain 12 grams of sugar.
But they contain antioxidants and fiber so they must be super-healthy, right? Unless you learn to read food labels, you’ll be susceptible to front-of-the-package marketing claims and food companies specialize in highlighting minor stuff while covering up the important stuff at the back of the package.
Unfortunately, imaginary Ben has fallen for this, he likely doesn’t realize the granola bar he has switched to eating contains almost as much sugar as the candy bars he gave up. Yes, his granola bar is equal in sugar to his candy bar! Who knew?
Ben can avoid this in the future by reading the food label correctly. So how do you navigate the nutrient information panel?
Read the ingredients:
Ingredients are listed in order of weight, from higher to lower: the first few ingredients make up the majority of the product.
So when you see things with sugar, glucose, corn syrup, cane juice, or any other sweetener and oils or solid fats listed in the first few ingredients – then you know that unless you’re consciously going for candy what you’re about to get is very candy-like. Avoid anything with partially hydrogenated oils as these are sources of trans fats.
Read the nutrient information panel:
This is the white box somewhere on the packaging.
- Look at the serving size: The catch here is the serving size, often the serving size will be only a quarter of the whole packet. For example, a small packet of cookies may only have a serving size of 2-3 cookies. The nutrient information therefore refers to only 2-3 cookies (one serving) and not for the whole packet. Just weigh your cereal one day and see how small one serving of cereal really is.
- Check the calories per serve: This will tell you the total amount of calories per serve. If you plan on eating the whole packet you may need to multiply the calories by the number of serves in the packet.
- Check the nutrient content: grams of sugar, fat and fiber will also be listed along with any other vitamins and minerals the product contains. Aim for foods with some fiber, low sugar and low fat. Just remember that sugar may occur naturally from fruit or dairy in a product (which is why you read the ingredients also!) Again you may need to multiply these numbers by the number of serves to get the total amount for the whole packet.
#4. How do I know how many empty calories I’m consuming?
After learning the first few steps, imaginary Ben can now easily calculate how many calories he is consuming from empty calories. Let’s apply these skills to Ben’s drink choices and see how many calories he can cut out.
First, Ben switched from regular Coke to Vitamin Water. Second, he also sips a glass of wine every night.
Let’s start with Vitamin Water and compare to Coke.
If Ben looks at the nutrition information panels on these drinks, he will see that the Vitamin Water actually has nearly as much sugar as a can of Coke.
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You can see here the label on the Vitamin Water this is a good example of complex labeling. But it’s Vitamin Water!!! It’s like water – only with vitamins! As you see, that’s not true.
The calories per serving = 50, but there are 2.5 servings per packet (also listed on the label)
So we need to calculate this to get the total amount 50 x 2.5 = 125
Yes, by volume the Vitamin Water would have less calories and sugar than the Coke. But how many of you would really only drink half the bottle? This is another clever marketing tactic, the perceived healthfulness the Vitamin Water leads many people to believe a bigger serve is ok.
How many calories is Ben consuming over the week just from drinks?
- 1 Vitamin Water each day: 7 x 125 calories = 875 calories
- 5 red wines (medium glass of 175ml) over the week: 5 x 160 calories = 800 calories
Total = 1,675 calories per week, that’s nearly the equivalent of 0.5 pounds of weight loss just from this simple step.
Not all these calories are liquid calories, or else known as the worst kind of calories you could get because their satiety impact is minimal.
#5. How many tiny tweaks do I need to make to lose weight?
Let’s use imaginary Ben’s example. A calorie deficit is needed to lose weight. Ben is no longer losing weight. So what does this mean?
Ben is NOT in a calorie deficit, where calories in (calories we consume through food and drinks) are lower than calories out (calories we burn through metabolic processes (being alive!), daily activities and exercise). That’s not weird considering the switch from Coke to Vitamin Water that gave literally no benefits.
And for those of you who are like “no, you don’t need a calorie deficit, you just need to cut out carbs/sugar/fats etc“:
You can cut out all the carbs you want and still not lose weight – if you are not in a calorie deficit. There are people who eat a diet of only potatoes or pizza and still lose weight, a good example of how a calorie deficit equals weight loss and not a specific food group.(1)
So how do we arrive at a calorie deficit? Read the calorie deficit guide, to calculate your own maintenance calories. Now let’s apply this to Ben’s example:
- His estimated energy requirement to maintain this weight is 3395 calories per day (using the online calculator.)
- Next we subtract 500 calories to get an average weight loss rate of one pound a week (a pound of fat is burned with an average deficit of 3500 calories.)
- The final number for weight loss is 2895 calories per day.
Previously we calculated that just by changing his drink choices Ben can reduce his calorie intake by 1,675 calories per week. That’s already a calorie deficit of 335 calories per day!
All he needs to do now is identify another 165 calories per day to cut back on and he will reach his target of losing 15 pounds. At a weight loss rate of a pound a weight he’ll make that happen in 15 weeks – so just under 4 months.
Watch for unexpected consequences brought on by healthier habits…
- Ben starts keeping a food journal to identify more closely what he’s eating. He notices that quite often during the week he eats a cup of yogurt. Armed with his new food label reading skills he notices that his daily cup of yogurt has 22 grams of carbs – yes, it’s one of the fruity, sugary ones.
- So that cup of yogurt, and all 130 cal that came along with it, are now out! However, he doesn’t want to feel hungry so he switches that yogurt with an 100-cal fat-free and sugar-free greek yogurt. That’s a net of only 30 calories but now Ben is no longer piling up sugar and is arming himself with protein – which is more filling and will keep his appetite low for a longer period of time.
- Because Ben is feeling fuller now he gets to delay his dinner by one hour. By eating dinner later Ben no longer feels the need to get a snack just before bed. So no more crunching on whatever he would find at the fridge 30 min before bedtime – Ben now goes straight to bed.
- And that’s how he saves 150-200 cal – Ben just eliminated night-time snacking by switching empty calories to a more filling and healthy choice!
Note the big win here: Ben will lose weight WITHOUT feeling like he’s on a diet. He’s not really restricting calories; he just takes better care of himself. He does misses his cup of wine sometimes but in time he gets used to not drinking, plus he enjoys the extra level of alertness that he has without the alcohol.
Put it all together: How many pounds will you lose if you were to make tiny empty calorie tweaks?
Now that you’ve reviewed imaginary Ben’s case study, let’s apply this to your life! How many pounds will YOU lose if you were to limit empty calories? Here’s your summary guide:
- Read the calorie deficit guide to calculate your maintenance calories and better understand weight loss
- Keep a food journal for one week to track your eating habits
- Identify the eating habits that contain empty calories
- Cut out those empty calories and/or swap them with more nutrient-dense choices
- Calculate if you saved any calories by making the above choices, e.g., Ben saved calories by no longer drinking Vitamin Water and ditching wine
- Watch for unexpected consequences as you may end up saving more calories. E.g., Ben saved calories by no longer needing a night-time snack because his switch from empty-calorie yogurt to a more nutrient-dense yogurt made him fuller for longer, which pushed his dinner to one hour later, which made him no longer need a snack before bed.
Some additional tips:
- Foods high in empty calories often lead to over eating. The combination of high sugar and fat is delicious! We want more and are often able to continue eating even after we feel full. That’s why some people erroneously think that sugar is addictive and decide to go on a no sugar diet.
- Many ultraprocessedand packaged foods are also very high in salt, which increases the palatability (the taste) of foods and also makes you want to continue eating. (3)
- By focusing on nutrient dense foods you can help control your food and calorie intake (like Ben’s yogurt swap.) (2)
Now leave a comment and let me know – what empty calorie foods could you live without? Would you ditch them completely or swap them with a more nutrient-dense choice?
- Jennifer Erickson and Joanne Slavin. Are restrictive guidelines for added sugars science based? Nutr J. 2015; 14: 124.
- Rolls BJ, Drewnowski A, Ledikwe JH. Changing the energy density of the diet as a strategy for weight management. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2005;105(5):98-103.
- Yeomans MR, Blundell JE, Leshem M. Palatability: response to nutritional need or need-free stimulation of appetite? British Journal of Nutrition. 2004;92(S1):S3-S14.
- Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, Howard BV, Lefevre M, Lustig RH, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health. Circulation. 2009;120(11):1011-20